Eleven years ago, Father Charles J. Ramirez, associate pastor of Church of the Nativity in El Monte, was a television newscaster in Sacramento. But, he says, "I decided I'd rather be preaching the good news of Jesus rather than just the news."
No sudden conversion caused his shift in careers, but a series of whispers that eventually swelled to a calling.
The Catholic church on North Tyler Avenue, where Ramirez is saying the 9 a.m. Sunday Mass, is large, beige, mutedly modern in design.
As Ramirez delivers the homily, he strolls halfway down the aisle. He is 41, slightly chunky, moving easily in his vestments, with jet-black hair and dark warm eyes, bright as a bird's, that beam with warmth and contentment.
Ramirez describes his congregation as roughly 60% Latino, 30% Anglo and 10% Asian, predominantly Filipino and Vietnamese.
Nativity is a charismatic renewal Catholic church, which is more evangelical than traditional Catholicism. The 400 or so attending the service shake hands before it starts and hold hands afterwards, reaching across the aisle so that the whole congregation is linked.
Ramirez came to Nativity in June of 1987 as a deacon and was ordained Sept. 5 that year, when he became an associate pastor.
From 1974 to 1978 in Sacramento, first at the CBS affiliate and later at the ABC affiliate, he was a field reporter. The police beat, the City Council, the school board. A human interest series, "Around California." ("Like Charles Kuralt," he says, "but not as good.")
And then newscasting began to be frustrating in unexpected ways.
"I can remember covering a story in the poor section of Sacramento, working the swing shift," he said. "A woman was shot by her ex-son-in-law. You never leave the scene of a murder till you get a shot of the body being brought out on the gurney.
"This woman was the mother of a big family, about eight kids." He tells how the children drove up one by one and reacted to the tragedy. "The members of the family didn't want us to shoot the body," he said.
But the TV crew got its pictures. The gurney was being wheeled away when one of the woman's daughters broke out from the gathering and ran after it, pleading, "Let me touch her one more time!" Ramirez recalled.
"I felt like a vulture, waiting there. I thought, Something's not right here, for me."
He moved from the station to General Dynamics, a defense contractor, doing in-house TV shows, and he started teaching a class at a local parish. By 1982, the charismatic renewal movement was well established, and it became central in Ramirez's life.
He had been brought up a Catholic in Azusa, the son of a salesman and a mother who later became a real estate agent, and attended what was then Pomona Catholic Boys High School and then Cal Poly Pomona.
In those days, he said, "my concept of God wasn't a loving concept, more of a policeman in the sky."
His grandmother always wanted a priest in the family, "but I always fought it," he said. "I wanted to get married and have a family and everything."
In his room at home, there had been a picture of Jesus Christ ministering to a throng of the faithful. And Ramirez imitates how he felt as a youngster. "Can I ever find myself there? Nah--that's for people who are straight-A students and have their lives together." In time, he said, "the picture starts coming into focus." At the end of seminary training, "the archbishop says OK, you can step into that picture and become part of it."
The God of charismatic renewal is primarily a God of love, Ramirez says. "You know what it's like when someone loves you? There's a great sense of joy in that. Someone would walk to the ends of the Earth for you--that's what it was like, my relation to Jesus. . . . So when I saw him more as lover than accuser, then it clicked."
Accompanying this "great sense of peace," he said, was a feeling that you want "to give it back. . . . People always ask, 'What meaning does life have for me?' That's not the question. The question is, 'What meaning can I give to life?' "
The key had clicked in the door, and now the door opened. In 1982, he entered St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, where he learned the Spanish in which he says some of the Masses.
Ramirez believes that his story is more ordinary than most people would think. "There are more vocations than there are priests," he said, explaining that the world has "so much static" that many with a calling for it never make it to the priesthood.
And yes, he concedes, the ban on marriage discourages many. "I think marriage should be optional for priests," he said. "But you'd have to find a really understanding wife."
Living in a rectory means a priest is available at all hours, like a mother, he said. "I'm so exhausted at the end of the day," he said, that "it wouldn't be fair to my own family. . . . I myself couldn't serve two masters." On his day off he sleeps, visits his family, and sometimes takes in an escapist movie. (" 'Naked Gun' was hilarious.")
He is more trusting and less cynical, he said, than in the days when he was a TV reporter. And a great deal happier.
As a TV newscaster, he said, "I had to remain removed from my subject. I did a story about a little girl who gets abducted. I wanted to console the mother, but it wasn't my job to offer consolation. Now I can console people, get intimately involved. Not only in the tragedies, but in the joyous events, the baptisms and marriages.
"It's kind of neat."